At first glance the modern grocery store is filled with an amazing array of different foods with a selection that no one could have imagined even just a few decades ago. There are about 45,000 items in the average American grocery store with around 17,000 new items every year. As incredible as that is, it is merely an illusion. According to Michael Pollan, more than half of all those items contain corn.
Once upon a time food was comprised of minimally processed plants and animals. Now corn dominates our entire lives. We eat it (in the form of corn oil, starch, and other highly processed additives); we drink it (in the form of corn syrup); we feed it to livestock; we brush our teeth with it; we use it as fuel; and that’s just the beginning of the list. Corn has made its way into nearly every aspect of our American lives.
So how did this happen? This is the story of corn’s domination.
The Rise of Zea Mays
Corn is native to Central America and was not introduced to the rest of the world until Europeans began colonizing the Americas. As Europeans all but wiped out the native peoples of the Americas and all things associated with them (bison, etc.), corn survived due to its versatility and its life sustaining characteristics. Corn could provide ready-to-eat and storable food, a source of animal feed, a heating fuel, and an intoxicant. This was the beginning of corn’s market economy but it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that corn really began to take off.
Corporate Corn and the Industrial Farmer
During the Great Depression, farmers were impacted greatly by plummeting crop prices. Farms were going under across the nation because they were growing too much food and no one was buying. In response to this, new American farming policies were created that incentivized farmers to produce only enough to keep up with demand and keep prices stable. This system not only got farmers through the Great Depression but remained fairly successful up until the 1970s. The problem was that farmers began growing only the crops that were subsidized, like corn, wheat, and cotton, to name a few. The industrial food machine was underway.
The 1950s saw the beginning of the end to these New Deal farm programs. Economists and other powerful enemies of the programs argued that supporting crop prices and limiting production did not make sense in our capitalist market. Everyone except farmers benefited from low crop prices and overproduction. Food processors, transporters, and sellers all profited from overproduction, while numerous politicians and business leaders felt America had far too many farmers. The idea was to let the capitalist market determine the fate of farmers. Add that to the ever growing technological advances in farming and the small farmer was “no longer needed.”
Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, championed these ideas and eventually created the Farm Act of 1973. Agriculture was flipped upside down. The bill urged overproduction instead of underproduction. Now farmers could grow as much as they want, sell their crops for whatever price they want, and the Federal government would be there to make up the difference with taxpayer dollars through subsidies.
A Mountain of Corn
Farmers were now stuck in a vicious cycle where they had to grow corn, and lots of it, if they wanted to survive. While farmers were producing more and more corn, corporations rushed to figure out what to do with it all. High fructose corn syrup was introduced to the food system in large quantities in the 1980s, along with countless other manipulated forms of corn.
Subsidized corn has even caused international problems. Researchers speculate that heavily subsidized American corn has disrupted rural Mexico, where small farmers cannot compete with cheap American corn.
Choose Local, Diverse, and Organic
Cheap corn has completely changed the way we eat and the way we live, whether we are aware of it or not. The numerous organizations concerned about America’s obesity epidemic have pointed to the ubiquity of cheap corn as a key ingredient in our increasing health problems.
The story of corn’s rise to dominance is the story of our modern conventional food system. The massive overproduction of certain monoculture crops has numerous dangers associated with it, both biologically and environmentally, but, how do we change it? Making a conscious choice to shop at your local natural food co-op that supports small farmers who grow a variety of crops is a great place to start. Check out the ingredients in what you’re consuming and if you cannot read or understand what the ingredient is, it is likely some form of manipulated corn. If enough of us decide to avoid highly processed foods, maybe the free market will balance itself out when demand for these products drop and demand for fresh, local, diverse crops increase. We will never know unless we take action.